The good news for women interested in construction is that the industry is more welcoming to them than ever.
With a persistent labor shortage that’s showing no signs of going away soon, most contractors now recognize they’ll never make headway against the trade’s persistent labor shortage if they’re overlooking half of the country’s population. More than old-fashioned discrimination, the greatest barriers to women entering the trades are practical in nature, say panelists scheduled to speak Thursday in celebration of Women in Construction week. The biggest need is for convenient, affordable child care.
Kilah Engelke, business agent for the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 599, said most daycares simply open too late to accommodate the schedules of construction workers, who are often required to be on site as soon as the sun rises to make the most of daylight hours. Then there are the days when unforeseen circumstances force crews to stay well past quitting time. All of this can play havoc with the need to drop off and pick up children at set hours.
Engelke said efforts are already underway to provide relief. Various groups in the Milwaukee area – including The Milwaukee Building Trades, Building Advantage and empowHER, which works to bring women into the industry and break down existing barriers – are drawing up a plan to help ensure child care is both available and affordable to trades workers.
“We are diligently and intensely collaborating with strong industry partners to ensure that there are viable solutions,” Engelke said.
Beyond practical considerations, the panel discussion Thursday is meant to provide examples of women who have been successful doing all types of construction work. Women who might feel hesitant about the trades should be able draw encouragement from others who have gone before them.
“We want to be celebrating each other,” Engelke said. “We want it to be obvious that there’s help out there – if they are having issues or if there are barriers – that there’s a network out there for them.”
Tracey Griffith, director of outreach and partnerships at Walbec Group and a board member of empowHER, said as much as recruitment, industry officials must set a priority on retaining women who do choose the industry.
“I do think the industry has changed and is more welcoming than it was 20 years ago,” she said, “but we’re still not anywhere near where we need to be.”
Here are what the panelists for Thursday’s event had to say on similar topics:
Alice Westphal, a site superintendent who has been with Mortenson for more than 16 years, agreed that the retention of women should be a priority. She said the industry’s work to reach out to young women and teenage girls in high school and immediately after will be to little avail if these new recruits get quickly discouraged and drop out.
Westphal said as important as services like child care are, women in the industry also need to know they can rely on their fellow workers for support.
“You have to know that you have a network,” she said. “We have to behave as if we have each other’s back at all times.”
Michele Williams, a journeyworker wireman at Roman Electric, said it is difficult to step on to a job site and discover that you are the only woman present.
“It’s a little bit of a culture shock,” she said. “It may not be weird for other people, but it’s weird for you.”
Fortunately, she said, she can almost always count on at least one other woman working alongside these days. More often than not, it’s two or three others.
“I do think the trades could do more to bring women into leadership roles,” she said, “because women can be ambitious and eager to take on challenging tasks.”
Ana Lopez, owner of the Bulter-based general contractor Allcon LLC, provides evidence – if any were needed – that women can run a company in this highly competitive industry. Lopez said one thing she has seen hold back female construction workers is a reluctance to speak out.
“They tend to let their male counterparts ask questions for them,” Lopez said. “They need to have that confidence to be able to speak for themselves. If they don’t, men are going to end up speaking for them.”
Christina Breitlow, a journeyworker plumber at West Allis-based Mattox Plumbing, said the biases now preventing women from entering the industry are often in their own minds.
“They tend to still think it’s only for a big, burly man,” she said. “But in general the trades, although they are physically demanding, they take a lot of brains. It’s as much mental as physical.”
Breitlow said she’s confident more and more women will be drawn to the trades as they come to recognize their many benefits: good pay, steady employment through the use of a necessary skill and the opportunity to make lasting improvements to the physical world.
“As long as you’re wiling to be a little uncomfortable from time to time, and trust the process and find allies in your trade, you will find what you need to be successful,” she said.Follow @TDR_WLJDan